Visualizing song structures

How do you write out a pop, rock or dance song? There’s no single standard method. Some musicians use standard western notation. Some do everything by ear. Many of us use methods that fall somewhere in between. One such compromise system in widespread use is the lead sheet:

Other systems for song documentation include chord charts and the Nashville numbering system. But plenty of musicians are unfamiliar with these systems, and may not have any method for writing down songs at all. This leads to a lot of confusion during rehearsals and recording sessions. Any given section of a rock or pop song is likely to be simple, a few chords in a particular pattern, but the difficulty comes in figuring out and remembering the bigger structure: whether the guitar solo comes after the second verse or the chorus, how many bars long the bridge is, what beat the ending falls on.

Jazz is easier to play than rock in a certain sense, because its song forms are more standardized. There are a few very widely used templates: the head-solos-head format, the thirty-two bar AABA standard, blues, rhythm changes, and so on. Because of this formal standardization, you can put a bunch of jazz musicians who have never even met each other on a stage with zero rehearsal, and they’ll be able to bang tunes out without difficulty. Rock and pop are a lot more idiosyncratic, so even though they tend to be technically simpler than jazz, getting the different parts sorted out takes a lot more work.

The world of computer recording and sequencing is a big help with visualizing song structure. Once a tune is in a digital audio editor, it’s automatically “notated” as a set of audio regions against a grid of bars and beats. You can quickly learn to document your song structures, even if you have no idea how music notation works. You can use markers, color-coding and named memory locations to create an interactive road map of your track.

Learning to visualize a song on the computer screen doesn’t just make your life easier when you’re writing or recording. By looking at song structures, you can learn a lot about how music is put together, about the symmetries and asymmetries, the repetition and variation and recursion. You can learn these things through very attentive listening too, but getting your eyes involved really helps to drive the ideas home.

Here’s a recent composition I did for grad school using Ableton Live:

Here’s my arbitrary color-coding scheme for mapping out songs in audio editors.

That takes care of just about every kind of song component that I run into. Even in classical, abstract electronica and other non-pop-oriented music, parts can usually be mapped to the above sections — for instance, any repeated motivic section can function as the “chorus,” and mostly similar sections can be “verses.” Occasionally, I do have to extend the color scheme a little. If the verses are very different from one another, I might use different shades of blue. If there’s a particularly long and convoluted break or bridge, I might use different shades of orange or purple for each subsection. But for the most part, six colors are plenty.

Here are some well-known songs that I’ve mapped out in Ableton. When I refer to a bar, that just means the amount of time it takes to count one-two-three-four.

Carly Rae Jepsen – “Call Me Maybe

The inescapable song of summer 2012 follows a standard pop structure. There’s a short intro, then alternating verses and choruses that are each sixteen bars long. (I’ve split the choruses in half because they’re really duplicates of the same eight-bar phrase.) Between verse/chorus one and verse/chorus two, there’s a short break. After chorus two, there’s a bridge and a breakdown. Then you hear the final chorus, and bang, it’s over. “Call Me Maybe” is as typical a contemporary radio hit as you could ask for. That’s not to knock it; I happen to love the song. Pop conventions are what they are because they’re what most people enjoy hearing.

Diana Ross – “I’m Coming Out

This Nile Rodgers classic mostly follows a standard pop structure, but there are some idiosyncrasies. First of all, there’s the unusually long intro, twenty bars of suspenseful build-up. The chorus comes before the verse, and after the first one, there’s a four-bar prechorus. The trombone solo follows the form of the verse and prechorus, and the bridge is a combination of the chorus and intro, which is an elegant bit of musical economy.

Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean

Michael Jackson’s originals are pure pop, but they have quite a bit of eccentricity in their structure. “Billie Jean” is no exception. MJ revered Diana Ross, and like “I’m Coming Out,” this tune has an unusually long intro created with dance in mind. The verses repeat one and a half times each.The second chorus is short, and is immediately followed by the third chorus. After the break, there’s an even shorter version of the chorus, followed by a normal one. I normally advise beginning songwriters to keep all of their choruses the same. But MJ knew what he was doing, and the groove is impossible to argue with.

Eric B and Rakim – “Follow The Leader

Hip-hop is all about stripped-down economy. You’ll never hear a bridge in a hip-hop song. Usually it’s just verses and choruses, with a breakdown that’s just the verse with only the bass and drums. “Follow The Leader” even skips the breakdown. Just looking at the extreme length of the verses, you can tell that this tune exists to showcase Rakim’s intense flow. The third verse spills over four bars longer than the first two, as if Rakim couldn’t contain all of his ideas within the form. The chorus consists of Eric B scratching a short phrase from another of their songs, “I Know You Got Soul.”

The Beatles – “Dear Prudence

The Beatles dominate the pop landscape, but they also stand somewhat outside of it. Their songs are more complex than is the norm for rock, and especially in their later work, their song forms can be seriously far out. John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” is mostly straightforward, with verse/chorus pairs separated by short breaks and a bridge in the middle. But the fourth verse is a bar shorter than the others, with a much more frenetic feel, and the final chorus has a halftime feel compared to the others. Also, you can’t see this here, but the song has barely any harmonic movement, so the song is built mostly from changes in instrumental density and energy level. That’s a very hip and futuristic songwriting strategy.

The Beatles – “Hey Jude

This is a classic Paul McCartney crowdpleaser, but like a lot of McCartney tunes, it’s an oddity on the page. The intro is one beat long, consisting entirely of the word “Hey.” The first two verses are back to back, and then instead of the expected chorus, you get a bridge. After another verse, there’s yet another bridge. At last, after the final verse, you hit the prechorus for the first time, a full three minutes into the song: “Better, better, better, better, better, better, better, AAAHHHH!” The song ends with eighteen repetitions of the long-awaited chorus: “Na, na na, na na na naaah, na na na naaah, hey Jude.” It’s strange, but so, so satisfying.

The Beatles – “Something

George Harrison wrote a lot of eccentric music too, but this song is perfectly conventional. I didn’t even make the guitar solo orange, because it follows the verse and chorus form so exactly. The major break with orthodoxy comes in the short breaks that act as hinges between the keys of C and A. Beautiful, simple, effective.

Here are all three Beatles tunes lined up for comparison.

Seeing music helps you hear it. Even a total beginner can benefit from trying to count through a song, writing down how many bars are in each section, what order the sections come in, trying out strategies for representing this information on the page. Feel free to use my system if you think it’ll be helpful.

4 thoughts on “Visualizing song structures

  1. Hilarious, I landed on this page twice, once last week when I was googling color coding song sections for inspiration (I’m color blind), and just this morning I followed a link in the ‘Play With Your Music’ course and landed in the same place.

  2. Pingback: Post 7 – Rock and roll! How to listen for and analyze musical structure. | NYU MusEDLab

  3. I’m an aspiring songwriter and I just have to give you so many kudos for this! I’m a very visual person; your post has made it much easier to map song structure. Then, I can use this system in my own stuff. Thanks!

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